Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Obedience, Rule-Following, and Transcendent Love

The last three blogs were about prayer. I talked about praying to images and icons, then explored the “to whom” we pray, and finally the purpose of prayer. Now I would like to cover rule-following and transcendent love. I will cover the true reason for obedience to God, why we follow rules, and nature and purpose of transcendent love.


I want to begin with obedience. There is something important about this in every one of our lives—and especially in response to a command such as, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “love your enemies and pray for them,” or “do not covet,” or even the more personal commands God gives us.

Obedience to God is not found in mere conformity to religious rules, behaviors, rituals, practices or morality—either to please God or to control Him.

The key reason for true obedience isn’t to try to control God, but to deepen our loving relationship with Him. As we become more responsive to Him, we move as He moves. As we move with Him, we know Him better and better. There are exceptions, but obedience to God is less like a soldier carrying out orders from on high, and more like a dance where He leads and we follow.


In the secular culture, obedience to the rules is how we receive approval, and punishment is how we control those who will not willingly comply. We are approved based on the measure of our conformance to the rules.

This is true in Christian churches and in all religions. We do things a certain way because the leaders and tradition tell us to, and if we don’t, we are politely ignored, marginalized, shunned, talked about, berated or put out. When we conform, we receive approval and acceptance; when we don’t, its disapproval and rejection. Countries, cities, tribes, social organizations, religions, cultures, gangs, families and institutions of all kinds use this to define who they are, and to enforce that definition on members.

In Genesis 2, Adam is given one rule for living in the Garden of Eden: Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. One rule given, one rule violated.

After the Fall (the violation of the first rule), God gave additional rules to human beings. These rules were useful in the growing up of humans in helping us understand right from wrong, as parents or teachers do with children. These rules include the Ten Commandments, and another 603 rules throughout the Old Testament: a total of 613.

The Pharisees also followed what is called the “Oral Law,” said to have also been given at Sinai by God along with the Ten Commandments, and intended to help them follow the 613 rules in all manner of circumstances, and with specific methods of application and interpretation, all to deal with the problem of the creatures (us) disobeying the Creator. The oral law was their means to fit God’s desires for us to the practical and varying circumstances of everyday life. In that sense, it was not a rigid and unreasonable application of rules, but a nuanced and careful effort to be wisely and humanely obedient.

But Jesus deeply understood that there was much more to human life than simply trying to apply rules to govern behavior. This is a key to who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as His followers.

Transcendent Love

The transcendent love of God pours through us into the world we occupy. Simple obedience to the rules—which just by themselves cannot work—is insufficient to the task, even when they rest on moral and ethical behavior.

God’s concern is always about love, always about loving relationships, always about building up and not harming. He seeks holiness from us, for He is holy. That holiness is His nature, and it requires love from us. His concern is not about the mere fulfillment of ritual obligations, or the following of law. Here’s how Paul explained it:

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. … For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive everything promised to us who are right with God through faith.  For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus it makes no difference to God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised [that is, whether we have followed the ritual rules]. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. You were getting along so well. Who has interfered with you to hold you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. Galatians 5:1, 4-8, NLT First Edition

I don’t know about you, but this is very scary to me. It is much easier for me to try to follow, apply and impose rules all the time. And the rules were there for a reason. They helped us understand right from wrong. But the true love that allows us to live as God desires requires transcendence. And it calls us to freedom.

That transcendence is given to us in the simple command, “Love God” and in the simple application, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we do this we have fulfilled the law, we have transcended the law, and we have been set free by transcendent love.

Love is transcendent because it comes from the Source of our creation, and it approaches people and circumstances with a heavenly view, not just a worldly one. Where the Pharisee saw a prostitute, Jesus saw a woman needing the love of God; where those who would stone an adulteress saw the Law violated, Jesus gave freedom from condemnation. Where others saw a despised tax collector, or a Samaritan, or a blind man, or a demon-possessed man, or sick or dead, Jesus saw His beloved children, and His love brushed aside the judgments of men, invaded this kingdom of earth and its laws (including even the laws of time and space), and revealed the transcendent love of the Kingdom of God.

It is to this that we are called.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Prayer Part 3— Posture & Purpose

This is the last of the three-part series on Prayer.  In the last two blogs on prayer, we looked in part at the “to whom” of prayer. In this blog we are going to look at the Posture and Purpose of prayer.

What are the postures of prayer? Scripture records a variety of postures during prayer: standing, kneeling, sitting, prostrate, hands spread, beating the chest—and other instances where we have no idea at all what the posture was.

Although hands held together are traditional it’s not recorded in Scripture. It’s ironic that this has become the norm in so many churches, and that the scriptural forms are often shunned.

More commonly in Scripture, hands are lifted in what is often called the “Orans” position. Orans is Latin for “praying”.

Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to You, when I lift up my hands              toward Your holy sanctuary.  Psalm 28:2 NKJV
I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.  1Timothy 2:8 NKJV

Of course, the efficacy of our prayer doesn’t depend on whether our hands are raised or folded, or whether we stand, sit or lie prostrate, face to the ground. Prayer is about the conversation of one’s heart with the heart of God, and thus all of these postures are acceptable to God. But it’s the posture of the heart that really matters.

The same is true with God. He doesn’t require certain postures of us when we pray, but there are things about prayer and posture that are tied to the attitude of our heart and our approach to the throne of grace. Posture affects how I experience my relationship with Him, and that matters.

When I fold my hands and bow my head, in that posture is a sense of humility and submission. When I raise my hands there is a sense of surrender or thanksgiving. When I kneel, there is submission and honor. When I lie prostrate, there is awe and utter surrender in His presence. The posture itself can signify (and become integral to the experience of) the attitude of the heart toward the Creator. In a sense, posture is heart-talk, avoiding the word-generator of the brain that often interferes with or masks our deepest feelings.

Posture communicates, and can be an integral part of, how we pray. We should neither be afraid of it, nor rob ourselves of the gift of any of its forms. We should also not be dismissive of others who pray differently than we do.

Why do we pray? What is the purpose of prayer? If God already knows everything that’s going to happen anyway, why bother to pray? Assuming that “what will be, will be”—that the future is predetermined anyway and God knows it and wills it, and therefore I can’t change it—is unbiblical.

When we say, “God, Your will be done on Earth,” we’re not saying, “I’ll just sit here and wait until You’re finished.” No, it means, “I’m a willing participant. Shape me as You need to, use me as You need to, that Your will might be done on Earth.”

We are also commanded to pray. Jesus very clearly says to pray for our enemies. He didn’t say, “If you don’t have anything better to do…” He commanded us to pray for our enemies. This kind of prayer is very hard. For one thing, “enemies” doesn’t just refer to people with guns who might rob us on the street, or to enemy combatants, or to countries or organizations that aim to hurt or destroy us. Enemies include those people who just get under your skin—sisters and brothers and neighbors and people in church. When I find myself irritated with somebody else, that person has become my enemy. Jesus says to pray for that person. We’re commanded to do that. It is hard to do, but it is what He commanded.

The number-one purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship, our communion with God. It is both to know Him more fully, and also to serve Him more willingly.

Another purpose of prayer is to express our needs, whether for guidance, healing, hope, comfort, counsel, courage or even perseverance. We should tell God plainly what we need. He will hear.

So as to purposes, I’ve mentioned here only a very few. Scripture is replete with purposes for prayer—prayer for enemies, prayer for nonbelievers, prayer for a favorable old age, prayer for children. It goes on and on and on and on. In the end, in each case, the purpose of prayer is conversation and communion with God. Talk with and abide in Him—and He will live in and through us.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Prayer-Part 2 To Whom?

In this blog we’ll look at a host of additional prayer issues, beyond stained glass, paintings, statues and icons. These range from praying to dead people (saints and others), to praying directly to God, to confusion about the direction and object (the “to whom”) of our prayers. Odds are there are ways of praying that we all misunderstand and misjudge. We’ll look at four key areas.

1. Praying to Saints for Their Personal Assistance

In some Christian traditions, people believe each saint has specific areas of interest and power, and can respond to prayer to them by acting on our behalf. Other traditions find this incomprehensible and wrong. But before we reject this outright, let’s consider some of the testimony of Scripture that seems to support this concept.


Angels are not humans, nor are they humans who have died and been sent to earth by God on special missions (as TV and many movies would have us think). They are another order of creation altogether, and they carry out God’s will, including communicating with people, performing supernatural acts and fighting battles, both against other supernatural beings and on behalf of humans. While we may think of God always being the One who acts—since He is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent—Scripture regularly shows His actions as flowing through others, who themselves have free will and choose to act as He has instructed, or not. Angels are a prime example of this.

Prophets, Disciples and Apostles

We also see God using people in this way. Recall Moses and the plagues against the Egyptian Pharaoh, Elijah calling down fire from heaven, Paul healing a man crippled from birth and Jesus sending out 70 disciples with the authority to heal, or the Twelve to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead and cast out demons.


God also uses believers – that is, people we wouldn’t normally think of as “saints,” but who are followers of Jesus, who can and do act on God’s behalf. There are many places in Scripture where power of God flowing through people is demonstrated, but probably one of the most obvious is in 1 Corinthians 12. Here it lists the gifts of the Spirit, the ways that God works through believers to both build up the Body of Christ (that is, the Church) and to reach out to the world. These gifts include supernatural wisdom and knowledge, prophecy, healing and miracles. That is, supernatural things happen through people.

Animals and Thing

God acts and touches people supernaturally even through animals, inanimate objects and, well, other weird stuff. A dove brought an olive branch to Noah to signify the end of the Flood, a bush burned in front of Moses without being consumed and God’s voice spoke out of it, a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke led the Israelites through the wilderness, Balaam’s donkey spoke, and fingers appeared out of thin air and wrote on a wall. Peter’s shadow healed people, as did pieces of cloth that Paul had touched.

2. Praying to a Saint as an Intermediary to God

This is a slightly different idea than praying to a saint for their assistance (believing they each have areas of special power). Here the idea is that a given saint will more or less be the conduit to God through which our prayers flow, and through which then flows the power of God back to us, to help us in our time of need. The saints are, in effect, agents or messengers of God, much like angels, and act to carry our needs to Him, and then act to carry out His will. That, at least, is the idea.

3. Praying to Ask a Saint to Be an Intercessor

This is probably the least-known concept for Western Protestants, and yet perhaps the most common understanding of the role of saints for believers in the Orthodox Church: The dead saints of the Church can pray with you or pray for you. They can intercede. Does this make any sense at all?

As a 21st-century Protestant, if I am sick, or out of work, or worried about something, I believe it is perfectly fine to turn to a friend and say, “Joe, would you pray for me? Would you intercede about something?”

Does anyone, Protestant, Orthodox or Roman Catholic, think this is wrong? No, we think it is perfectly legitimate. We encourage such prayerful intercession for each other!

Here’s the thing: Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition sees heaven as only a tiny distance away, separated by a thin veil. They believe that those who have died and gone into God’s presence are still fully aware of us, though we can’t see them. They know what we are doing and can hear us just as easily as if they were here, standing nearby.

Hence these traditions believe it makes perfect sense to ask a family member who has died, a saint, or even Mary the mother of Jesus, to pray for us. It is simply intercession. That is how it is understood, and up until recent centuries was the normative understanding of the Church. And still is, for most Christians worldwide.


Well, then, do we need to go indirectly, through saints, or Mary, or sweet Uncle Harry? Or can we go directly to God Himself? We might think this is simple—we go to God, of course! Why not?!

Remember, Moses saw God face-to-face in some (apparently) limited way, but in a later encounter he only saw God’s back, because to see Him directly, in all His glory, would have killed him. God said so to him. Uzzah died just by touching the Ark of the Covenant. The high priest, going into the Holy of Holies once per year, would die in God’s presence there if he had not first been purified. Yeow!

Maybe this indirect prayer, through the intercession of someone in heaven, isn’t such a bad idea! At the very least, it is understandable. But is it necessary to be indirect in our prayer to God?

What Hebrews says is that each and every one of us, because of Jesus’ sacrifice of on the cross, has permission to go into the Holy of Holies—where previously only the great High Priest could go, and only after he had been purified. The curtain that divided the Holy of Holies from the common people has been split in half, and now we have the right to go into to the very presence of God. Jesus gave us direct access.

What Scripture tells us is that we don’t have to be afraid of talking directly to the Father, directly to the Son, or directly to the Holy Spirit. Jesus did that for us. That was a gift He gave us by His sacrifice on the cross.


Asking a friend for intercession, or praying to saints, shouldn’t be used as a replacement for talking to God directly yourself. The most important person who can pray for you is … you! You can have every person on Earth praying for you, or for someone you care about, but if you’re not doing any praying yourself, something’s wrong. It’s basically asking everyone else to go to bat for you but never bothering to join in.

Isn’t this why we have prayer—because it's an opportunity to talk with our Creator? It’s the means to build an intimate, two-way personal relationship.

Consider God's view—what would He rather have? You, coming personally to talk, or you, always “sending a messenger” in your place? The choice should be obvious! Pray to God.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Prayer-Part 1 Images and Icons

The Apostle Paul exhorted us to “pray without ceasing.”1 Thessalonians 5:17
Prayer is a big topic and it is really important. It is a key part of the love relationship we have with God, of Life in Christ, or Covenant. It is central to how we are intimate with him. It is our love language.
Because Prayer is such a big topic I have decided to break it into three parts:
  1. Images and Icons
  2. To Whom?
  3. Object, Posture, Purpose and More
This is the first of the three blogs to be posted over the next three weeks. There is so much in Scripture on prayer, and so much written about it in theology, one hardly knows where to start. But we’ll try to tackle the most common issues.

Here’s a good place to start: Broadly speaking, Christians in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions use “common prayer.” That is, they pray liturgically and simultaneously. They recite prayers together aloud, that were written by someone else, often from a prayer book or worship booklet. To them this seems normal, communal, holy and God-honoring. Many such folks look at modern spontaneous Protestant prayer and feel that it is casual, lacks awe, and is out of order.

Many modern Protestants, on the other hand, look at this liturgical prayer and see it as stiff, impersonal, rote, disengaged and potentially not honored by God: Mere ritual. To such Protestants, Jesus is “best friend and savior,” the Father is “Abba,” and the Holy Spirit is the power present to act and meet needs—why would they want to pray to such an intimate God with anything other than a spontaneous outpouring of their hearts?

I’ve described these differences a bit in caricature, but to make a point: We are raised up in, or adopt, a stream of Church tradition that we find familiar or fitting, and it tends to make us look askance (or dismissively) at other streams. We see what is familiar to us as right, and what is unfamiliar as wrong or at least suspicious. Not always, but often enough that it is worthwhile to consider seriously how others pray.


So, as we begin to look at prayer, know that my intention is not to declare who is right and who is wrong, but rather to study and grasp how each of many groups within the Church has learned (and loves) to pray. At the end of this journey we’ll reflect on what we’ve learned and how to apply it in our own Life with Christ. Parts of this will be uncomfortable for some of us, out of our comfort zone and at odds with what we learned or accepted as we grew up. For now I beg your patience as we press in.


So, let’s explore, and ask some pointed questions, starting with:

For Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” They do this as a normal part of their Christian life. A very few modern Protestants do also, but most would consider it a kind of idolatry.

While there are exceptions and nuances in this debate, the primary reason statues and icons are opposed is due to a misunderstanding of their intended purpose. This opposition is mostly from some modern Protestant Christians, who often assume (or were taught, as I was), that the Roman and Eastern churches teach their members that they should:

  • Pray to the statue or icon
  • Worship the statue or icon
  • Worship the saint depicted by the statue or icon
This is simply incorrect. In both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the primary purpose of statues and icons—in addition to the beauty they bring to a sanctuary—is to remind Christians of the lives of faithful followers of Jesus who lived before us, and to encourage today’s Christians to be similarly faithful. These churches do not teach their people to pray to or worship the statue, icon or saint. (Do some people, mistakenly, do so? Yes. We’ll look at that next week.)

In earlier eras, when few people could read, statues and icons (and larger paintings and stained-glass windows) were the “books” of the day to tell the Gospel stories, and to recall the history of the Church in the lives of the saints. They are the Bible and Church history told through art, rather than in words. THAT was and still is their purpose.

Beyond this, icons have taken on another, special role in the prayer life of many Christians—said simply, they are a point of focus, a “window into heaven,” to help the people who are praying to deepen their relationship with God and their comprehension of Scripture. The elements of the icon’s image all serve to encourage this deepening. This is spelled out much more fully in my book, but that’s the basic idea: to pictorially represent a scriptural event or truth, and serve to focus one’s prayer on this.

So we should be careful in what we assume is going on, or being taught or believed, in a denomination or stream of the Church which is not our own. And this is a caution that we should all keep close to our hearts, not just in relation to icons or statues, but to any of the religious concepts we hold dear. In defending concepts, and in attacking those we disagree with, we can too easily end up destroying objects, concepts and even people.

This is not to say that nothing should be defended or challenged, but rather that we need to remember that Jesus said “all the Law and the Prophets” depend upon, and are subject to, the love of God and neighbor. If we harm someone in defense of a religious concept, we have violated Jesus’ clear commands, and missed something fundamental about the character of our God.

So let’s ask Him to guide our hearts as we continue to study and understand the nature of prayer, and its various expressions in the Church. More next week.

In Christ,

Pastor George